‘The Triumph of Bullshit’: T. S. Eliot pre-empts his critics

The following poem is, I find, a remarkable piece of work, and for at least three reasons. For one thing, it is an exquisitely formed comic ballade by T. S. Eliot — not the first name that comes to mind, I dare say, when you think of funny verses, or of strict rhyme and meter for that matter.

Secondly, it’s a beautiful pre-emptive attack on just the sort of critics who would spend the remaining fifty-five years of Eliot’s life bellyaching about his poetry in just the way that he describes, though not usually with the same dash and glitter. Pre-emptive, I say: for Eliot wrote this poem about 1910, when he was still virtually unknown, before he composed any of the great poems that made him a cornerstone of the Modernist movement and the bête noire of every right-thinking reader. He never published it in his lifetime, but there must have been scores of reviewers that he would have liked to send it to privately.

It is also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known written usage of the word ‘bullshit’. I find this both amusing and tremendously sad. Bullshit had barely been christened, and already it was triumphant. If I am ever called upon to write a one-sentence history of the intellect in the twentieth century, that will be it.

The Triumph of Bullshit

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward, insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles freely versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotion that turn isiculous,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out ‘this stuff is too stiff for us’—
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannon fumiferous
Engines vaporous—all this will pass;
Quite innocent,— ‘he only wants to make shiver us.’
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shall pass
Among the theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ’s sake stick them up your ass.

—T. S. Eliot


  1. You may be interested in this essay on the poem, from a recent issue of our Newsletter.

    “The Triumph of Bullshit” is one of the early poems by Eliot, referred to as “scabrous exuberances” by Christopher Ricks.

    The poem was written or transcribed in around 1910, when Eliot was still unpublished (apart from work in in the Smith Record and the Harvard Advocate).

    But there exists no record of the term in literature prior to Eliot’s use of it in his poem’s title. So we must assume that he assimilated it, along with other “demotic” phrases, which he must have heard rather than read, and which he used in his later poetry.

    The Oxford English Dictionary is uncertain about the origin of bullshit; and, indeed, the similar use of the abbreviated and earlier term, bull. “No foundation appears,” it records, “for the guess that the word originated in ‘a contemptuous allusion to papal edicts’

    “Nor,” it continues, “for the assertion of the ‘British Apollo’ (No. 22. 1708) that ‘it became a Proverb from the repeated Blunders of one Obadiah Bull, a Lawyer of London, who liv’d in the Reign of K. Henry the Seventh’.”

    On February 2, 1915, Wyndham Lewis refers to the poem in a letter to Ezra Pound. “Eliot has sent me Bullshit & the Ballad for Big Louise.” (He is referring to “The Triumph of Bullshit” and “Ballade pour la grosse Lulu.”) “They are excellent bits of scholarly ribaldry,” he writes.“ … I am longing to print them in Blast”.

    This was the short-lived Vorticist magazine, largely written by Lewis himself. Issue 1 contained the Vorticist Manifesto; with statements such as “We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours”, it might have seemed an appropriate home for Bullshit.

    But Lewis wrote that he would “stick to my naif determination to have no ‘Words Ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger.’”

    None of these do actually occur in the poem; nevertheless, the second and final issue of Blast, published on 20th July 1915, included instead Eliot’s poems Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night – perhaps, it could be argued, a better indication of his future work.

    We tend to think of bullshit as American. And of course, Eliot had not yet succumbed to the civilising influences of our shores. (In the same poem, he encourages his critics to “stick it up your ass”, which, in both senses, is fundamentally American.)

    Yet it has been suggested that the term itself gained wider usage, during the subsequent Great War, thanks to Antipodean soldiers, when the British emphasis on spit and polish, or “bull”, was mocked, by adding the suffix “shit”.

    It was, however, another American who subsequently explored and defined the word, one William G Perry; like Eliot, an alumni of Harvard, where perhaps bullshit is persistent.
    Perry defined the verb “to bullshit” as: “To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of data, if one had any”.

    Bullshit is not a word one would immediately ascribe to our “punctilious” poet. We still tend to think of Eliot as Virginia Woolf described him – “in his four-piece suit”. Yet surely there is something humanising about acknowledging his use of such language?

    Along with the pleasure of knowing that we are quoting TS Eliot, the next time we dismiss something as bullshit.

    Anyone who is now encouraged to discover more about TS Eliot and his works is invited to visit our website at The TS Eliot Society UK, where there is a wealth of links and resources for enthusiasts and scholars.


  1. […] OED states that T.S. Elliot’s The Triumph of Bullshit (circa 1910) was the first example of the word ‘bullshit’ being used in writing. […]

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